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The Tones of Hokkien

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The Tones of Hokkien

How Many Tones Does Hokkien Have?

Hokkien is said to have between five to eight different tones, depending on the dialect. Hokkien dialects in Mainland China and Taiwan tend to possess seven tones, whereas Hokkien dialects in Southeast Asia tend to have six.

The differences in the number of tones occur because of the variations in the merging of tones. In dialects with seven tones (e.g. Xiamen and Taiwanese Hokkien), it is often the case that Tone 2 has merged with Tone 6. Don't worry if you don't know what these tones are yet, we’ll get to them soon!

Dialects with six tones (for example, Penang and Medan Hokkien) are often results of the mergers between Tone 2 and Tone 6, as well as Tone 3 and Tone 7. Singaporean Hokkien is difficult to classify in terms of the number of tones it has because it is a byproduct of multiple Hokkien dialects, although the dialect as a whole is closer to Amoy and Taiwanese Hokkien.

These tone mergers occur because the pitch between the merged tones are relatively close to begin with, so it does not mean that a person who speaks a dialect with six tones will have a difficult time understanding a person who speaks a dialect with seven, and vice versa.

The Tones

Now let’s listen to the tones first. Then, we will look into how to write the tone markings soon after this section.

  • Tone 1: High Level tone, example: ho:ng ‘wind 风’, sng ‘ice 冰’, sua ‘sand 沙’
  • Tone 2: High Falling tone, example: cuì ‘water 水’, hoì ‘fire 火’
  • Tone 3: Mid Falling tone, example: tiēn ‘electricity 电’, ‘earth 地’
  • Tone 4: Mid Entering tone, example: thik ‘steel 钢’
  • Tone 5: Low Rising tone, example: thó: ‘soil 土’, chá ‘wood 木’
  • Tone 6 = Tone 2
  • Tone 7 = Tone 3
  • Tone 8: High Entering tone, example: cio’k ‘stone 石’
The Tones of Hokkien

The table above should help you easily remember the tones. It is ordered from High Level, High Falling, Mid Falling, Mid Entering, Low Rising, and then High Entering—so it goes from High, Mid, Low, and then back to High.

Hokkien in This Website

This website will portray Hokkien in six tones, recognizing the popular merge between Tone 2 and Tone 6 across many dominant dialects. I have decided to also consider Tone 3 and Tone 7 merged, for the following reasons:

  • Dialects that merge Tone 3 and Tone 7 do exist
  • Both Tone 3 and Tone 7 are mid tones
  • Both Tone 3 and Tone 7 are close in pitch
  • Not recognizing the difference between Tone 3 and Tone 7 will not pose a significant impact in learning Hokkien
  • Considering Tone 3 and Tone 7 merged will make it easier to learn Hokkien
  • In dialects that separate Tone 3 and Tone 7, Tone 7 often transforms into Tone 3 anyways after Tone Sandhi is applied (Tone Sandhi is a change in a tone when a syllable is put together with another, we might get to this some time later!)

So, as one of the main goals of the Hokkien section in this website is to make it as easy as possible for those who want to learn Hokkien, once again, this website will portray Hokkien in six tones.

Tone Markings

This website has proposed a Hokkien writing system (Read: Writing and Pronouncing Hokkien) that will be used consistently in this website, and this article will further propose the tone markings to be used alongside this writing system.

As with in Writing and Pronouncing Hokkien, in proposing the set of tone markings, I maintained a few considerations:

  • For it to be as close as possible to Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), an existing Hokkien romanization. This website chooses not to adopt POJ for the reasons explained in Writing and Pronouncing Hokkien.
  • For it to be as easily typeable as possible, meaning the characters can be typed on a standard English keyboard without the need to set up another. In Mac, iOS, and Android, to get an accented character like ā, one simply needs to hold the character ‘a’ on a standard English keyboard keyboard, wait for its accented options to show up, and select one.
  • For it to be as resemblant as possible to the tones’ pitch direction, meaning the tone markings will as closely as possible resemble the directions of the arrows in the following chart.

Tone 1: High Level Tone

Similar to POJ, Tone 1 will be demonstrated without any tone markings. Example: ho:ng ‘wind 风’.

Tone 2: High Falling Tone

If you are familiar with the tones of Hanyu Pinyin in Mandarin, you may know that the four tone markings [ā, á, ǎ, à] are written based on the direction of the tone pitch. For example, Tone 4 in Mandarin is a High Falling tone, therefore Tone 4 in Mandarin is written as [à], a downward stroke as shown in the Tone 2 column in the table above (Tone 2 in Hokkien is also a High Falling tone, similar to Tone 4 in Mandarin).

This website proposes a High Falling Tone to be written based on the direction of its tone pitch (similar to Hanyu Pinyin), in that it will be written as a downward stroke. Example: cuì ‘water 水’.

Tone 3: Mid Falling Tone

Considering the merge of Tone 3 and Tone 7, this website proposes Tone 3 to be marked the same way Tone 7 is marked in POJ. The marking is written as a horizontal line. Example: tiēn ‘electricity 电’.

Tone 4: Mid Entering Tone

Also similar to POJ, Tone 4 will be demonstrated without any tone markings. However, it will be easy to distinguish between these two tones. In Hokkien, syllables bearing Tone 4 and Tone 8 ALWAYS end with [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h]; syllables that do not end with these sounds NEVER take on Tone 4 and Tone 8. So, if you encounter a syllable without any tone marking and it does not end with any of these four sounds, it possesses Tone 1. Otherwise, it possesses Tone 4. This also holds true in POJ. Example: thik ‘steel 钢’.

Tone 5: Low Rising Tone

Maintaining a similar rationale for Tone 2 above, Tone 5 will be written as an upward stroke. Example: thó: ‘soil 土’.

Tone 8: High Entering Tone

In POJ, Tone 8 is written as a vertical line, for example: cio̍k 'stone'. This is tricky to type on a computer and many fonts do not support it, and so this website proposes the use of a simple apostrophe before [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h] to denote this tone. Example: cio’k ‘stone 石’. Remember that syllables bearing Tone 4 and Tone 8 ALWAYS end with [-p], [-t], [-k], [-h].

Read Also

List of Hokkien Lessons in LingoNomad

For a list of Hokkien lessons in this website, visit this page.